Lulu Wang’s ‘Expats’ Is a Patient Journey Through Sorrow Led by a Striking Nicole Kidman 

Amazon’s “Expats” overflows with so much grief and regret that it proves why some series do work better as weekly installments. This layered drama is best taken in doses, giving the audience time to ponder over each episode. The plot is another, nearly anthropological exploration of a privileged class and how its customs are rattled by tragedy. Behaviors and exchanges become more important than the mystery at the heart of the story. It’s a fitting return for director Lulu Wang, who made a great feature film breakthrough in 2019 with “The Farewell” and is drawn to themes of identity imposed by culture and geography. Simultaneously, star Nicole Kidman gets to again show off how her presence can make any slow burner alluring.

The story begins in a cryptic fashion where characters are introduced and are clearly linked by tragedy. Hong Kong’s upper social circles are the setting. Margaret (Kidman) is an architect and mom married to a successful Chinese man, Clark (Brian Tree). He is turning 50 but the upcoming party coincides with the tragic one-year anniversary of the disappearance of one of the couple’s young sons. Margaret’s old friend and neighbor is Hilary (Sarayu Blue), an equally privileged Indian-American married to David (Jack Huston). The lingering aftermath of Margaret’s ordeal is filtering into Hilary’s deceptively polished world where her marriage is silently breaking apart. She went into marrying David believing they both didn’t want children, now that is creating unspoken tensions. Outside from the lavish apartment lives Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a freelance caterer still trying to figure life out, but who is emotionally scarred from her own connection to the night Margaret’s child disappeared.

Wang is adapting a 2016 novel by Yasmin Y.K. Lee, “The Expatriates,” and designs the episodes into something akin to the flow of chapters. In the same way we have to keep reading a book to let the story unspool, “Expats” requires us to give it proper time and attention. It opens as a character study where the viewer is a fly on the wall within social circles of Hong Kong where westerners and Asian elites intermarry, gossip and live in golden bubbles. The writing focuses on the fine details that give it all great authenticity. These characters go to the gym as a badge of their personal discipline and wait to have kids well into their mid and late 40s. Mercy is the outsider who seems to hang out with her rich college friends from Columbia more out of the possibility of some advancement opportunity. She bemoans later about having a couple of drinks “worth a day’s wages” and during a yacht party, clarifies she went to college on a scholarship. Awkward silences follow when she rambles about feeling cursed her entire life. 

“Expats” observes but isn’t necessarily a stinging social commentary. Wang does not aim to divide the characters only into class factions. She is more fascinated by how unexpected tragedies, which can drop into life so simply, shake the foundations of this environment. Margaret’s status and opulent lifestyle seems to dissipate when she has a breakdown and wanders the market where her son went missing. She’s a walking wreck and emotional time bomb. Hilary’s obsession with appearances can’t hold together when she knows Davis is drinking again. She is also keeping a secret that she’s back on birth control. The maids and drivers who make everyone’s life function comfortably are side players who later get a bit more attention. Mercy also starts seeing a girl who yanks her into the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. Wang also makes sure to include how culture itself is then a player in class divisions. Mercy is Korean and this creates a further sense of isolation. 

Kidman’s skill with bringing out the vulnerability and veiled sense of superiority of her character, similar to her role in 2004’s “Birth,” gives Margaret great depth. The rest of the cast are also excellent and are the key element that make “Expats” work. Viewers who are not into slow burner TV might have a hard time getting into such an introspective, patient drama where there’s little humor and much despair. It is almost surprising this one is on Amazon considering Apple is the home base for these long studies in sorrow. There has to be room for every angle of the human experience in drama. “Expats” isn’t about thrills but the long road of enduring a trauma and waking up the next day. It’s about how we try to avoid crucial decisions or simply telling the truth about how we feel. Neither the rich nor poor can escape those very human trials.

Expats” begins streaming Jan. 26 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Amazon Prime Video.